The Amazing Transformation of Mexico Over the Past 50 Years

I recently finished reading Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by New York Times reporters Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon.

It does a great job of giving a one-book overview of the enormous changes in the Mexican political system over the last fifty years or so and how they came about. Mexico transformed from an impregnable one-party totalitarian state that controlled nearly every aspect of public life into a thriving, multi-party republic in a process that was difficult and frustrating but relatively (though certainly not entirely) bloodless. It is fascinating to read about the combination of enduring grassroots struggle, top-down glasnost-like reform, and behind-the-scenes cross-ideology opposition partnerships that brought this off.

It’s surprising to me how little of this story has become part of the political dialog in the United States. Compared to things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yeltsin standing on a tank, the Tiananmen massacre, glasnost & perestroika, Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid, or Lech Walesa and Solidarity, for example, how many aspects of this revolution of our next-door neighbor have become commonplace parts of the discussion here and how many of its figures are household names? How much of it got the sort of wide-eyed media coverage the current Egyptian struggle is getting?

But all that aside, I did keep my Picket Line eyes peeled for mentions of tax resistance and did find an interesting passage on the Zapatista movement. The Zapatistas burst onto the scene as an armed guerrilla uprising, full of revolutionary bluster, but quickly found themselves to be hopelessly outgunned by the government. So they changed tactics:

The Zapatistas’ townships, called municipios autónomos, built on the Indians’ sense of being separate in both politics and faith but magnified it. Although the EZLN had a clandestine army of as many as one thousand guerrilla fighters (most of them peasant farmers by day), early in their uprising they made it clear that they were not anxious to engage in combat. Rather, their method of defiance was to set up their own alternative town administrations with their own policies and social programs while rejecting all contact with government agencies. The Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, and Chol Indians (among others) who lived in the autonomous townships called their political philosophy resistencia: civil resistance to government authority. In the late 1990s there were thirty-eight Zapatista townships in Chiapas, including less than 10 percent of the 700,000 Indians in the state, but with a political impact in the indigenous communities that far outweighed their size.

The Zapatistas sought not to found a new Indian nation but to make a place for Indian self-determination within the Mexican state. In their townships they kept their own birth and death records, discouraging followers from registering with official bureaucracies. They stopped paying taxes to any government and refused to allow social workers from government health and welfare agencies to set foot inside what they considered their boundaries. They opened their own health clinics staffed by volunteer Mexican and foreign doctors and local herbal healers and organized agricultural and crafts cooperatives that operated mainly through regional barter. In some townships they held trials and set up jails.